Make the most of parent-teacher conferences

Melissa Erickson

Whether it’s helping with homework or volunteering in the classroom, a parent’s involvement in his/her child’s education is recognized as the single most important factor in school success and achievement, according to research by the National Education Association. For many families, parental involvement boils down to a brief parent-teacher conference once or twice a year. How can you make the most of this opportunity?

“Parents should do a bit of preparation before the parent-teacher conference,” said Amy Deaner, product manager for, part of the Family Education Network. Here are her suggestions for a successful conference:

• Before the conference, decide what information you would like from the teacher and questions you want answered. Narrow down and prioritize your concerns so that the conference stays focused. Appropriate topics include questions about your child’s progress, how you can work with the teacher/school to help your child, questions about the school’s programs and policies.

• Talk to your child to find out if she has anything she would like discussed, and find out what your child thinks is her best subject and what subjects she likes least.

• Come prepared to share some of your child’s special talents, interests or accomplishments. Don’t be surprised if the teacher inquires about your child’s home life, personality, hobbies and habits; she is trying to gain information to help understand your child.

• And, if the conference is in response to a specific problem with the child, allow a bit of time to pass so that you’re less emotionally charged and can be more objective.

During the conference, parents should keep the communication open and unemotional by focusing the conversation on what can be done for your son or daughter immediately.

• Stay open to suggestions offered by your child’s teacher. If the teacher isn’t offering specific suggestions for you to implement at home, ask about practical changes you can make to help your child.

• You should expect the teacher to show you samples of your son’s or daughter’s work.

• Remember to avoid discussing family problems, bringing up other teachers’ treatment of your child, comparing your child to siblings or other students, blaming the teacher  and most of all avoid arguments with the teacher.

• Be respectful of the teacher’s time and that other parents might be waiting for their scheduled appointments. Teachers often spend many hours preparing for these meetings, and a “thank you” can go a long way.

The conference should end with you and the teacher agreeing on an action plan, which you both will work on to help your child’s performance improve.

At the end of the conference, be sure to review, and even take notes on what you have discussed so that you and the teacher are clear on how to move forward. Remember the ultimate goal is to create a relationship based on cooperation and communication to improve your child’s experience in the classroom.

Keeping communication open

For teachers encountering parents who are not immediately open to communication, here are some time-tested ways to improve the likelihood they will attend a conference and continue communication.

• Begin by taking the first step in keeping parents regularly informed of what is happening in the classroom. Before school starts, send a “Welcome to my class. I can’t wait to meet you postcard.” Maintain communication by sending home a weekly newsletter and have parents sign it to be sure they read it.

• Don’t use lines of communication to always relay bad news but to also celebrate academic accomplishments.

• Each day select a student (going down your roster in alphabetical order), and write a short note (two to four sentences) expressing a positive event or accomplishment for that student to take home.

• Encourage parents to volunteer or simply observe in the classroom, and express that it is for the benefit of their child. Use students to help recruit parents to share their hobbies, vocations or vacations. Recognize parents who do participate, and be patient with those more reluctant – keep trying!

• Confirm conference day, time and place with a personal letter to parents. Inform the parent of the conference purpose, and entice them by explaining that you are gathering a portfolio of their child’s work.

• If necessary, make arrangements for an interpreter to make non-English-speaking parents feel more comfortable.

• Be sure to follow up with phone calls, notes, messages or letters to every parent, including those who didn’t attend (“I’m sorry I missed you at the parent-teacher conferences last week. May I call you for a personal meeting?”).